July in New York City. Extreme heat and humidity, heavy traffic, surging crowds. What to do? Where to go? Art galleries seemed a good choice, being air-conditioned. But I could only take so many! So I headed out, and around. First, to Central Park. Spacious, green and shady. And hot, hot, hot.
Then to Brooklyn Botanic Garden with its fascinating new grass-roofed information centre. There was welcome sunlight and shadow, especially beneath the historic cherry trees and in the long-established garden of native plants. But it was hot!
Then, the Cloisters Museum at the northernmost point of Manhattan. After a 45-minute train trip (costing just $2.50!) it was wonderful to stroll in through the greenery and lush planting of expansive Fort Tryon Park, overlooking the sweep of the Hudson River. Yet even inside the fine 1930s building that incorporates amazing huge pieces of medieval European architecture (in particular), sculpture and art, it was still pretty hot.
So as a last resort I settled for New York’s ‘park in the sky’, the High Line. People told me that this walkway, newly created on an elevated old rail freight track by the waterfront on Manhattan’s West Side, was very special.
I was all at sea in the cluttered streets, and had to ask a passer-by for directions. He smiled and pointed. ‘Up there!’ Now I spotted the rail line, and gingerly navigated a steep flight of steps to the top. The sun glared down but a breeze was blowing, and the views down and out were great. I turned left and start walking – into a garden-cum-pedestrian passage like nothing I had experienced before.
The High Line was built in the early 1930s to help solve major traffic problems on Manhattan’s crowded industrial streets. It took trains to, from and through buildings to deliver goods. After it closed in 1980, wildflowers sprang up all over it. Twenty years later, two concerned local residents began working to ward off its threatened demolition.
They formed The Friends of the High Line group, which has put years of effort into spreading the word and raising the huge amounts of money required to stabilise and redesign the empty track, and refit it as a public space. The project opened in two stages – 2007 and 2011. The effort continues, with work now under way on a third stage.
The High Line is many things.
It’s a structure, in metal (rusted old and shiny new), timber, and creatively handled concrete, stone and gravel.
It’s a beautifully designed landscape, full of green and healthy plants, many of them native to the area. Piet Oudulf from the Netherlands advised on this.
It’s a place for people, who come in droves – with a growing annual count of some four million – to enjoy its elevated perspective out across New York. About half are locals, the rest visitors and tourists. They stroll, they look at the plants, they admire the views, they lie back on the elegant seats that emerge from the paving as part of the architecture of the place. They arrive early to talk to the gardeners; they flock in in droves through the whole day; they come hand in hand at night, when romance is in the air and lighting is concealed within the handrails so that the plants are illuminated and the city sparkles in the dark.
The walkway is 2.2 kilometres long, but once you are cruising along it the distance is immaterial. As is the time it takes, because the environs are so alluring! You move along varied, beautifully designed paving through open spaces, then under shady trees. You look closely at narrow swathes of planting (unobtrusively roped off) that is alternatively colourful and soft and green – and that is allowed to set its seed, in wildflower tradition. You happen across pieces of in-your-face contemporary sculpture, then admire an alluring Art Deco railing. You see cheeky signs that put a smile on your face. On either side, beyond the plants, you see buildings – close-set against the rails or towering further away – that are both new and old, unimaginative and innovative.
It’s all part of the rich tapestry of the High Line. And the more you look, the more you notice, and the more you feel about the place. Just as the old rail tracks and the ‘fingers’ of concrete paving split off from each other and vanish into the planting, so your appreciation grows of how this stunning urban creation can set a new direction for city gardens of the future.
Yes, it was another very hot day. But on the High Line, I didn’t notice it.